Drive Through New York State's Human Rights History
The original version of this article first appeared on CityLab.
On Election Day in November 2016, Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York, extended its hours to accommodate a steady stream of visitors. On their way home from the polls, people flocked to the resting place of Susan B. Anthony to leave bouquets and American flags and confetti the suffragist’s tombstone with “I Voted” stickers.
The cemetery has become a tourism destination for visitors looking to commemorate the fight for female suffrage in New York state. This year marks the centennial of women’s right to vote in New York, and in conjunction with the anniversary, the state’s Department of Economic Development launched a new tourism campaign—including a cemetery stopover—organized around the push for equality.
The campaign, which debuted on May 4, 2017, imagines a road trip that touches on the suffragist movement, abolitionism, and sites of significance to the LGBT community. Checking off the 20 destinations on the list would involve winding a path up from New York City to the Adirondacks back down through to the Finger Lakes and all the way to Buffalo.
There are stops in Seneca Falls, host to the 1848 convention agitating for women’s rights, and at Alice Austen’s Dutch farmhouse in Staten Island, now a museum of the pioneering photographer’s work. Travelers can pop in to the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum in Jamestown, which honors Lucy’s groundbreaking work as a female honcho at a TV production company.
In Oswego, travelers can stop at the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, which housed 1,000 refugees—many of whom escaped from concentration camps—invited by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Nearby, there’s Harriet Tubman’s home in Auburn. Or head down to the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan—not far from the Stonewall Inn and the NYC AIDS Memorial, unveiled last winter across from the former site of St. Vincent’s Hospital, whose sprawling ward was, the guide notes, “the symbolic epicenter of the disease.”
While these destinations are hardly an exhaustive catalog, they speak to histories that are still, by and large, overlooked. It was just last summer that the Stonewall Inn was officially designated as a national monument—the first specifically commemorating the struggle for LGBT rights. Many groups are working to recover these stories, but it’s still unusual for them to be recognized at the national level.
Earlier this month, in a spotlight of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project—which is conducting oral histories and excavating narratives from local collections in the service of chronicling meaningful LGBT sites around the city—DNAinfo noted that only about a dozen of the 92,000 sites on the National Register of Historic Places have an association with LGBT history.
For a historic preservationist, saving and curating these stories can be a challenge. In eras in which these identities were even more acutely stigmatized, researchers told DNAinfo, records may have been destroyed, or never committed to paper in the first place.
There’s also a question of how to celebrate and protect places that have a cultural significance but little architectural interest. Historic sites such as gathering places can be hard to turn into tourist destinations. For example, PFLAG—Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People—was born in an apartment in Flushing, Queens, in 1972.
“They’re buildings that don’t look like much,” Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University and NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project director, told CityLab last year.
Though the campaign doesn’t make any explicit references to current political debates about vulnerable groups and who belongs where in America, it’s hard to ignore the thematic echoes. The campaign slogan, “Equal Rights. Right Here,” feels like a rallying cry, and the introduction by Governor Andrew Cuomo has nods obliquely to NYC’s commitment to remain a sanctuary city. “Whether we’ve been here one day or our whole lives, we all belong,” he wrote. “Our voices matter here, our rights are protected, and our differences are celebrated.”
A TV spot rolled out to promote the campaign takes greater pains to rinse the historical precedents with a contemporary relevance. In it, a little girl and her mother drive to Susan B. Anthony’s house. In it, a little girl and her mother drive to Susan B. Anthony’s house. Their car trip is spliced together with archival images of women casting ballots, marching, waving flags.
The girl looks around, awestruck, as light rakes through the living room; eventually, she leaves a hand-scribbled thank-you note on Anthony’s grave. Her voiceover pulls the past right into the present: “Because you roared so loud,” she says, “I know my voice matters today.”